We in the comms team at Akvo wanted to share some information with our colleagues about how to write blogs for the new Akvo website (the formats have changed since we switched over to our new site), as well as our thoughts on writing blogs in general. And whenever we want to share information online so that it’s easy for colleagues to find, we generally head to the company blog.

At Akvo, our goal is to have as many people in the team as possible playing an active role in the organisation’s communications. This is in contrast to lots of places we’ve worked in the past – where only “spokespeople” would be allowed to have an external voice. Akvo has just over 40 staff, and of those 22 people have blogged. So more than 50%. We know some people would like to blog, but feel unsure how to do it or what to say and are maybe a little nervous to have their writing published.

This blog is intended to be a ‘how to’ guide for posting blogs on the Akvo site. Some of the information is therefore specific to Akvo, but some may be of general interest.

Contents

Part one – general points about blog-writing
  1. Why blog?
  2. Blog content
  3. Readership
  4. Language
  5. Tone
  6. Bite-sized chunks
  7. Make it a portal
  8. A good structure
Part two – formatting and technical info
  1. Process
  2. Categories
  3. Hyperlinks
  4. Images
  5. Captions
  6. Latest blog image on the homepage
  7. Videos
  8. Checklist
  9. Further reading
Why blog?
As an open source organisation, we try to share the journey of our work as well as the results and our blog is one important way we do this. It helps us share information internally and externally, it lets us raise awareness generally of what we’re doing and why and it helps everyone learn and reflect on things. It creates an invaluable, searchable archive of our work and a database of the images, videos, statistics, thoughts and facts that we deem to be the most interesting. It helps us engender and communicate a culture of openness and collaboration across an organisation whose staff are spread around the world and may not get to speak face to face very often. It gives new-joiners and partners a great place to read up on pretty much everything they might want to know about the story so far. It also helps people get a sense of the range of different personalities and skill-sets that make up our team and who to go to about what, making the whole organisation more personable and approachable.

Ideally, everyone at Akvo would be blogging now and then about what they’re working on and/or what’s on their mind. However that will probably never happen. That’s also fine. Good blogs are written because people feel they have something to say, not because they’re “supposed to” post stuff. As Mark Charmer put it in his ‘What is a blog?’ blog
“To me a blog is a candid voice, either the voice of an individual or a group of people, about an interest, a specialism or a project…Blogs only work if you write what you believe, or things that are really happening. We’ll all be able to tell if you’re just spouting what your boss told you to spin or promote. Later you may change your mind about what you said, and that’s fine too. In fact, that’s a cue to write the next blog, linking to the previous one.”
Blog content
There should be a good reason for writing any blog; it shouldn’t be a tick-box exercise. When planning a blog, it may be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:
  • What has prompted you to write this blog and who is it for?
  • What blogs do you generally read?
  • Why do you like them?
  • What makes you decide whether to read a blog or not?
  • What things annoy you about some blogs?
  • What types of content beyond just text could you include in your blog?
Personally, I tend to read blogs because they tell me something interesting that I didn’t already know. It maybe the information is particularly useful or relevant to my own work or areas of interest, or it may just be something that piques my curiosity on Twitter or Facebook and takes me away from what I should be doing (Guy Kawasaki and Holy Kaw have a lot to answer for!)

Readership
It helps to keep in mind who your blog is for and what they will want to know so you can tailor it accordingly. If you’re writing about a training course you recently ran for example, ask yourself who will be most interested and what specific information they would find useful. Your colleagues may be interested in slightly different aspects than the participants and their colleagues, for instance. Where possible, try to satisfy all your likely audiences. 

Bear in mind that the number of readers is not necessarily important. A really good blog on a niche subject may have only a small readership, but still be extremely worthwhile. 
If something interests you, it’s safe to assume it’s worth writing about as it will interest someone else too. If it’s not of interest to you, why are you writing the blog?

Language 
Think about the kind of language you use. Jargon is usually best avoided – or at least explained. It’s good practice to try and keep your language straightforward. It helps to review your copy and ask yourself if you could say the same thing more simply. However if you’re writing on a technical subject for a technically literate audience, then it makes sense to employ the language your readers are used to using.

On the Akvo blog we generally use British / UK English rather than US spelling of words like “realise” and “harbour”. (Genuine, actual Americans are excepted from this rule.) 

Tone
Everyone has their own writing style, and that’s all to the good. However as a general rule, the tone used on the Akvo blog – and the blogosphere in general – is rather informal and conversational. That means, among other things, it’s ok to use contractions like “it’s” instead of “it is”. That said, if your writing style is naturally more formal, that’s OK too – write in the way that feels most comfortable for you. Honesty and authenticity are key.

Our blog is non-political in tone. We almost never use it to campaign about specific issues. 

It’s fine to celebrate our successes on the Akvo blog, but try to avoid excessive mutual congratulations and back-slapping as it can be tiresome for everyone else. Similarly, try to be sparing with mentions of product names and other forms of overt branding.

The first time a product such as Akvo RSR or Akvo FLOW is mentioned, it’s a good idea to use the full name. The “Akvo” part can then be dropped for subsequent mentions.

Bite-sized chunks
Keep your paragraphs short and break your points up with frequent headings that help the reader scan the content and navigate to the parts that interest them most. 

Make it a portal
Blogs on akvo.org should serve as a portal to everything else about that topic – previous blogs, relevant websites and other items of content. This provides historical context and gives people all they need – the entire story so far – in one place. This means as an author you need to do a bit of research – google your topic and search the Akvo blog. Link to anything relevant.

A good structure
Think about the type of article you’re writing. Is it a news story, a narrative or a meditation on a particular topic

If it’s a news story, a useful model to bear in mind is the inverted pyramid. This helps you to prioritise information. The purpose of a news story is to tell you what happened as succinctly as possible. The key information may be just one short sentence, and should not be longer than one brief paragraph. The model is predicated on the fact that in print journalism, news stories are cut from the bottom upwards if they need to be shortened due to lack of space on the page. So if one or both of the bottom two sections of the pyramid are cut away, the story should still make sense and the reader should be left with the most important fact(s).

As with any model, you may have a good reason to disregard it. But in the absence of a good reason, it’s a useful tool. 

news pyramid
For narrative blogs and whimsical musings too, a good opener is important – anything that provides an intriguing entry point into the story you want to tell. That’s what I particularly love about this blog by Aulia, which starts with a horse, and this one by Amit which begins with an evocative landscape description. In both cases I want to read on.

Following the opening, it’s important to provide some context so that the reader understands quickly what the blog is about and whether it’s of interest to them. The body of the article should be used to develop and explore the points you want to make in a logical way.

Finally, you need a good way to close the piece so that it doesn’t trail off into nothing or end too abruptly leaving the reader hanging. A good device can be to return to the subject you opened with or one you touched on earlier in the article. 

Process
Generally, a member of the comms team should subedit a blog before it goes live to check for typos or language errors, sort out any formatting issues and provide other feedback as requested or needed. We check things like whether a featured image has been selected for the home page, whether you’ve added a signature line and if you’ve remembered to tick the appropriate blog categories. We can also help with preparing and uploading images, video and other content if you’re pushed for time.

What we emphatically don’t want to be are communications gatekeepers. It’s really important that you never feel that’s what we are. We try to get things published as quickly as possible and avoid creating a bottleneck. But in reality we’re a small team working in many cases part-time and delays do occur. If something is urgent and no comms team person is available, maybe another colleague can provide a second pair of eyes to review your article before you publish. 

It helps if you put your draft blog directly into WordPress. It’s good for you to get used to WordPress anyway, and we can then easily edit it there and you can review any changes and put it live. In this way, there are no version control issues. 

Categories

Remember to select the appropriate blog categories in WordPress before you publish. They help people find what they’re looking for on the blog.

Hyperlinks 
Try not to overload your blog with large numbers of inessential links to other material or websites. Company names, for example, don’t always need to be hyperlinked – people can always google if they want to find an organisation’s website. If it’s the only company mentioned, then by all means add a link the first time it’s mentioned. But if it’s one in a list of seven, don’t link the whole list.  

Our house style is that we set hyperlinks to open in the same window or tab. This avoids people ending up with large numbers of windows open in their browser, which can be particularly unwieldy when using a mobile device. 
hyperlink
Images and video

It’s a good idea to spice things up with different types of images and embedded video in blogs where relevant.  

Images
A good picture will draw people into your blog. Things that are eye-catching, amusing, intriguing or a little out of the norm will make your item stand out and make it more enjoyable to read.

team jump 850
Prepare your images for the web by compressing them to ideally less than 60kb each. Bear in mind that bandwidth is a major issue for many Akvo-followers around the world. Image files should be jpeg, png, tif or gif. Below is a video tutorial about how to do this on a Mac first published in this blog.



Images need to be 850 pixels wide by any height. However panoramic images that are wide and not very tall – i.e. a ratio of about 5:2 – work well on this blog page layout. ‘Tall’ images fill up most of the page, which looks strange. If you want to use a picture that is taller or squarer in shape, it’s a good idea to add blank space either side of the image in a programme such as Fireworks to make the ‘canvas’ of each image wide and thin. That’s what I did with the diagrams that appear in this blog. The comms team can help with this if you don’t have the software, time or inclination to do it yourself!

If the photo you want to include in your blog isn’t already online somewhere else, consider adding it to the Akvo Flickr pool. This will allow you to add a Flickr link to your blog photo so that readers can click through to download the original image if they want to. In fact all your best Akvo pictures should be added to the Flickr pool as a matter of course, as this is Akvo’s latest image library. It’s really important that you have the rights to an image you use – you can’t just do a Google search and grab anything you fancy. This is why it’s good to take plenty of photos yourself. It’s amazing what can work. 

Captions
The Akvo blog house style is not to caption images when uploading them to the blog, but to use the quote function in Word Press which highlights text in a coloured box. Wherever possible, name and link to the source and also link the image to its original online home.

Above: the Open UN-Habitat team in Nairobi. Photo by Mwarv Kirubi

Latest blog image on the homepage
You can select an image to appear in the Latest blog box on the home page by clicking on the Set featured image link on the bottom right hand side of the Edit Post page in WordPress, or in the Insert media window. featured image

Not every blog has to have a picture. If you don’t have an image for the homepage, you can use your name as a graphic. Linda can help with that. 

Videos
As a rule, it’s generally preferable – and very easy – to embed a video into your blog rather than linking to it elsewhere. To do that, you need to first put it online (if it’s not already), most likely on the Akvo Foundation YouTube channel. If you don’t have a log in for that or get stuck for another reason, please ask a member of the comms team. 

Once it’s uploaded, copy the code that you obtain by clicking on Share then Embed, and paste the code into the Text view of your blog draft in WordPress at the point in your blog where you would like it to appear. You can also embed a playlist in the same way. 

embedding videos

You won’t be able to see your video when you preview your blog, but it will be there when you put it live.

Checklist
  • More tag – insert one after the first couple of paragraphs so your blog doesn’t fill the whole of the blog home page. If you don’t do this, Thomas will track you down and eat you.
  • Featured image – remember to select which picture you’d like to appear on the Akvo home page.
  • Byline – put a sentence  in italics with your name and job title at the end of the article.
  • Categories – remember to select the appropriate categories from the list so people can find your blog.
  • Image captions – make sure you’ve captioned your pictures, including photographer credits and other salient info.
Further reading 
How to Craft a Blog Post – 10 Crucial Points to Pause
How to Write the Perfect Blog Post
A daily updated list of the most widely read and influential blogs

Jo Pratt is a communications manager at Akvo.